MARIB â€” The government dispatched more helicopter-born troops on Wednesday to encircle a rugged mountain hideout and cut off water deliveries to the region where a reneged tribe is holding five Italian tourists hostage.
The Associated Press saw dozens of soldiers emerge from helicopters in the Jahan area of Marib province, near where security officials say the kidnappers are holed up with their captives. Other helicopters could be seen flying low through the mountains, apparently trying to spot the tribesmen.
Tribal elders, who had been negotiating with the kidnappers, said the Italians â€” taken captive Sunday â€” still were held somewhere in the vast Sirwah region of Marib province, about 120 kilometres northeast of Sanaa.
Showing its growing impatience with the standoff, the government stopped delivering water to communal tanks in the area on Tuesday, a government official told The AP on condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to speak to the press.
Also, Prime Minister Abdul-Kader Bajammal declared the government would strike hard against the kidnappers, whom he called terrorists.
An interior ministry official had told AP the army was about to launch an attack against the kidnappers, but aside from increasing the number of soldiers on Wednesday, there were no other signs of an imminent assault.
The Italian government asked Yemeni authorities not to attack, fearing the tribesmen holding the three women and two men would kill their hostages.
The Italian ambassaor to Yemen, Mario Boffo, told the ANSA news agency that negotiations were continuing and â€œcontacts with the Yemeni government are very intense.â€ He said Rome and Sanaa authorities were in â€œsubstantial agreement and above all there’s the common, very strong desire to end this in a positive way.â€ Boffo told ANSA the hostages were in good condition.
Talks to free the five were deadlocked after the kidnappers refused to drop their demand that fellow tribesmen be freed from prison in exchange for the Italian tourists.
Within hours of the Italians’ abduction Sunday, negotiators persuaded the kidnappers to free the three women. They, however, refused to leave until their companions also were released.
Meanwhile, a thousand Yemeni protested in the street of Marib city demanding the government punish the kidnappers.
Last week, a former German foreign ministry official and his family were freed after a four-day kidnapping ordeal in the east of Yemen.
Tribesmen of the poor country at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula often resort to kidnapping tourists to force concessions from the government. Hostages normally have been released unharmed, but several were killed in 2000 when Yemeni soldiers carried out a botched raid to free them.
Government control in regions outside major population centres in Yemen is tenuous.